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Sexual Harassment Issues Highlighted at a Leading A.I. Conference

December 10, 2019, 4:02 AM UTC

Celeste Kidd, a cognitive psychologist, used her keynote talk at a prominent artificial intelligence conference to highlight issues around sexual harassment that have roiled the field over the past two years.

Kidd spent most of her keynote address Monday at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, one of the top meetings for A.I. researchers, detailing lessons computer scientists should know about human cognition.

But at the end of her remarks at the gathering in Vancouver, Canada, she turned unexpectedly and dramatically to the issue of sexual harassment and the #metoo movement. Kidd detailed her own experience with sexual harassment. She left the University of Rochester in 2018 after she and eight others accused the university of mishandling their sexual harassment complaints against brain sciences professor Florian Jaeger.

Now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Kidd said she wanted to speak to how the #metoo movement had affected men, some of whom complained they were now reluctant or afraid to mentor female researchers out of concern that an “innocent misstep” could lead a career-ending sexual harassment complaint.

“You have been mislead,” Kidd said, addressing these men. She said that in the vast majority of cases women only make allegations of sexual harassment after egregious misconduct. She noted that women face a persistent risk of retaliation for making complaints and that they deserve to be believed.

She also cautioned men against believing other men who, when accused of serious sexual harassment or assault, apologize for some minor misconduct or “misunderstanding” while denying more serious allegations. “This is a standard response,” she said. “It makes the complainant look confused or unreasonable.”

Finally, she urged men not to be afraid to interact with female colleagues and mentor female students and researchers. “Unless you are deeply doing wrong,” she said. “You are probably on safe ground.”

Kidd received a standing ovation for her remarks.

The community of machine learning researchers has been roiled by a series of sexual harassment scandals at technology companies and universities over the past three years. At the 2017 NeurIPS conference in Long Beach, Calif., a well-known A.I. researcher made an inappropriate joke in public about sexual assault.

In the wake of this incident, sexual misconduct allegations came to light against two well-known A.I. researchers, Steven Scott, who was a senior researcher at Google, and Bradley Carlin, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Scott was suspended from his job at Google and eventually fired; Carlin resigned in the wake of the allegations.

And those incidents were just a few among many to surface in the technology industry, including the revelation that Google had reached a $90 million settlement with Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android operating system, after being made aware of allegations he had coerced sex from a fellow employee.

Following the scandals involving NeurIPS, the conference organizers surveyed attendees about their experiences at the event. Many reported experiencing sexual harassment and said they saw the conference as permitting a sexist atmosphere.

In an effort to address the problem, last year the conference, which used to be called NIPS, a name which lended itself to juvenile and sexist jokes, changed its official acronym in an effort to be more inclusive. It also instituted a conduct policy for all participants.

As a result, many women at last year’s conference reported that the atmosphere had become more welcoming.

“Diversity and inclusion ensures that the field of AI benefits society,” Katherine Heller, a researcher at Google and a professor of statistical science at Duke University, who serves as the NeurIPS diversity and inclusion co-chairperson, said in an e-mailed statement. “Professor Kidd sharing her research and her experience as a woman in AI, as well as her work advocating for women’s rights in the workplace are exactly the kinds of voices we want to hear from.”

This story has been updated to include the statement from NeurIPS’s Katherine Heller.

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